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Imagine if you could click a link to jump straight inside an app – and never download it? You’d never need to visit an app store. Or download an app at all.  Tim Green ponders the mind-boggling implications of Android Instant Apps…

Has Google just started the post-app age? After all, it really really wants to.

Last week, at its Google I/O developer event, the company unveiled Android Instant Apps. It lets any Android user click on a link and open up the app – just the bit he or she wants, not the whole thing – without downloading it.

This turns the foundation of the app ecosystem on its head.

Here’s how Ellie Powers, group product manager on the Android team, explained it during the keynote.

“With the web you can just click a link and land on a web page, that’s one click and a few seconds. What if you could run any app with one tap? That’s what we’re working on.”

    Instant Apps reduces the friction of finding and installing an app by sidestepping the process altogether. The long-term implications could be significant. If users and developers really go for the Instant Apps idea, why do they need the app store at all?

Think about it. It’s a big idea. With one move Google is saying:

  • You don’t need to go to the app store any more
  • You can browse for apps like you browse the web
  • You can find apps anywhere you find links – in an email, text, web search etc
  • You don’t need to find and keep that many apps any more

These are all ground-shaking moves. But they are welcome. The app ecosystem is a mess. To unpick why, let’s go back a bit. I think the alarm bells started with the introduction of folders for iOS in 2010.

Apple, true to style, was very proud of this. Got too many apps on your home screen? Simple. Just create a folder (or ten) and store them inside. Or you could equally infer ‘bury’ them, where they are out of sight and out of mind.

Apple was saying: we’re helping you to be better organised. But it could equally have said: apps are out of control. It wasn’t meant to be like this. When apps first appeared in 2008, they offered a much-needed user-experience boost for users.

Apps were smartphone-first. A joy to use, fast, intuitive. So much better than the web. Great for content creators so. Anyone could make one and upload it to an audience of millions. But apps became too successful. In time, the same core problems that hampered the web world stifled the app space.

Consumers asked:

  • How can I find the right app?
  • Why should I download an app for something I don’t do much
  • Why does downloading take so long?
  • Why do I have to go to the app store to get one?
  • I’m running out of space cos of all my apps

Creators asked:

  • How can I get people to find my app?
  • How can I get people to share my app?
  • How can I get people to pay from my app?

Needless to say, each of these problems was answered with some kind of (ultimately unsatisfactory) hack. So we paid for people to download apps (to get them into the charts, where they could be seen and discovered by ‘real’ people). Or we developed special app-install ad platforms. Or we created folders on our home screens.

So now Google has made its big move. Not another hack, but a change in the fundamentals.

To give an idea of how Instant Apps work, Google used the example of buying a camera bag. It explained that most people don’t want or need a dedicated camera equipment app on the phone. But a camera equipment app is the best buying experience. So when an app is Instant Apps enabled, a search result takes the user instantly to the specific page of that app.

Even better, if that app has Android Pay, the user can click to pay in a tap.

The process works in the ‘real world’ too. Google gave the example of parking, where the motorist could activate the necessary component of a parking app with an NFC tap, then pay using Android Pay. All done in a few clicks. Compare that with the grief of opening up Google Play, finding and downloading the app, entering the details, assigning payment credentials etc.

Thus, Instant Apps reduces the friction of finding and installing an app by side-stepping the process altogether.

The long-term implications could be significant. If users and developers really go for the Instant Apps idea, why do they need the app store? And why even bother to download apps at all, apart from the dozen or so you use every day (weather, bank, train times, Facebook etc)?

If Instant Apps makes life easier for mobile users, you can bet it makes things pretty good for Google too. The company was always wary of apps because they weren’t as searchable and monetisable as web pages.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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But now – perhaps – it’s found a way to let people continue to have the superior app experience, while organising their discovery and usage in a way that suits Google best.

What about its rivals? Facebook has some thinking to do. It’s clearly working to superpower its app (and also its chat apps) to create single destinations from which you can do anything. In this mission it’s been helped by the chaotic app ecosystem.

Then there’s Apple. If Instant Apps works, the pressure will be on for it to offer something similar. Or will it?